When war broke out, we were in the final phase of our training. The Fourth World War was much worse than the third. No coalitions were formed as country fought country for various reasons, whether for water, livestock or fertile land.
Our worst fears had been realised.
Ships containing nuclear waste had been sailing from port to port, seeking permission to dump but no country would allow them entry. Even India, the last resort, refused them port entry. Finally, a missile struck during the night, causing widespread devastation to the already devastated Bay of Bengal.
Those who survived made it to shore, but barely. The television broadcast showed five survivors moulting sheets of skin off their raw, exposed, boiling bodies. As they hobbled towards the hospital like walking volcanoes, a large crowd followed at a safe distance for fear of catching a fatal disease.
Distraught nurses screamed as the survivors stumbled into the hospital. An eerie, ghostly spectre of men emitting steam from their mouths and nostrils created a scene from a horror movie. When they collapsed at the front desk, a wide-eyed receptionist hollered over the intercom for assistance, trembling as if to cry, as she pushed the button with all the force she could muster while other awaiting patients fled the scene, howling like insane zombies. Frantic doctors and porters ran to aid them but stopped in their tracks when they saw the frightening spectacle.
A short, bent, wizened doctor stared in disbelief momentarily, before calling for hazmat suits and for the hospital to be locked down for quarantine. Security guards immediately sprang into action to close all entry and exit points, using their batons to drive back those wishing to escape. Everyone inside was ordered to remain. Some tried to slip away more than once but were led back to their seats sobbing and trembling in fear.
“I have children at home,” a woman was heard wailing. “I have to get to my sick grandmother,” a young man called out, but his words fell on deaf ears. “Mamma...mamma...mamma...” There was a collective cry from children who’d become separated from their mothers. A nurse rounded them up and assured them that she would find their mothers. She stilled their cries with a promise of sweets and wiped their tears from their little flushed cheeks before turning to walk up the corridor to her office, presumably to get the sweets.
They were still afraid and trembling when the nurse returned to where they were sitting on the bench. She ripped open the packet impatiently and proceeded to hand out the sweets to the children. One obstinate child refused the sweets, saying that his mother warned him against getting bad teeth if he ate sweets. “You can’t get bad teeth from eating sweets just once, so here. I don’t want your bad attitude upsetting the other children.” The kid understood and reached out for a handful of sweets.
Everyone in the immediate vicinity was ordered to the Decontamination Unit. Those who had fled, were tracked down and returned for quarantine. The health department could take no chances.
Through the reception windows the chaotic scene was filmed by anyone who had an electronic device but by seven-thirty pm, the street was deserted, the windows blacked out and no one was allowed into or out of the parking lot. The entire block was cordoned off with armed guards posted at each corner.
The scene took on an ominous air of foreboding. For half an hour we watched the armed guards, casting eerie shadows under street lamps as they paced up and down the streets, menacingly holding their guns close to their bodies, with orders to shoot anyone who threatened to break quarantine. We left only when our fear subsided and the boredom urged us home.
Throughout the night we watched a rolling broadcast, hoping to get updates about how the survivors would affect our well-being but reports were limited and repetitive, consisting mostly of speculation. Journalists felt cheated that they were not granted interviews by the Hospital Superintendant.
Military tanks drove slowly around the block to prevent anyone from escaping and intrepid journalists from entering. Photographers stood at a distance with zoom lenses trained on an upstairs window where they estimated the intensive care unit to be.
The devastation was far reaching. It became a worldwide crisis. There seemed to be no solution to decontaminate the poor souls who tried to escape the catastrophe. We’d heard that steam continued to emanate from their orifices for the next twenty-four hours. They had been cooked alive by the radiation that escaped from the missile-hit vessel. How they got away while everyone else was cooked to death, was a mystery. They couldn’t speak to relay their experiences. It appeared that their inner as well as their outer bodies were stripped raw. It was a ghastly sight.
There was pandemonium when The Five as they came to be called were transferred from intensive care to Special Care where they were sedated until the steam had abated. Reporters went out en masse. The word spread like wildfire when a scout who’d been hiding close-by spread the word on the street.
After two months of intensive burn gel treatment, reports came that they had been stabilized. Patches of skin had started growing sporadically while they were being fed intravenously. Their tongues had begun to heal but they were however, still carrying a high level of contamination. There was no knowing how they would respond emotionally once they were out of special care. There was no telling if they’d be blind or not.
We now had more free time at the base and we could volunteer our assistance as we wished. A military doctor was appointed to monitor the progress of the five and I volunteered to accompany him.
It was my first time in an Alouette helicopter which was surprisingly spacious, though extremely noisy. My military fatigues were a godsend against the cold wind blowing through the opening where there should have been a door. In my opinion anyway but I later discovered that alouettes don’t normally have doors. The convex windows provided a one-hundred and eighty degree, unobstructed view of the Bay of Bengal and I felt privileged to be part of the delegation.
The sun had already set when we landed on the rooftop helipad. A ground pilot guided us safely to land and disappeared as we alighted from the helicopter, no doubt to notify the hospital superintendent that we had arrrived. All radio and digital telecommunications had been prohibited to minimise the risk of being detected by unwanted listeners. We had to rely on the old fashioned method of face-to-face communication and handwritten memos.
The Number Thirteen Hospital had become a ghostly prison with rigorous protocol to prevent any further contamination. Regular outpatients had to be treated at community halls.
Once inside, we donned hazmat suits and walked the long corridors to the intensive care ward which was a haze of white curtaining and walls. It was a strange sensation being clothed from head to toe in a plastic outfit that wheezed with every step. Talking through a mask had its disadvantage. It was incredibly hot and I was sweating profusely. The white gumboots themselves were ungainly, causing me to walk as if wading in water, propelling my arms away from my body in order to move forward.
At the bedside, we found ourselves joining a small crowd of medical personnel all with varying interests. At least the ward was air conditioned but I learnt that the suit had a cooling system built in which I had failed to activate. Immediately, I felt more comfortable and was able to listen to everyone’s conversations via the radio in the mask. There were skin specialists, trauma experts, psychiatrists, a host of general practitioners and Interns all come to learn something from the case.
Except for a small sheet covering their private parts, the patients were not clothed. They were each protected by a plastic enclosure where they lay as if entombed in a medical museum.
Seeing their condition close up was much worse than seeing it on television. The rawness of their exposed bodies was a painful sight but I gasped when I was told that they were looking much better. Patches of skin had started appearing randomly and they were breathing unaided. Intermittently they would moan and a nurse would interrupt her report-writing to check their sedative drips.
Soon everyone congregated around a Virologist who had arrived from South Africa where burn accidents were common. Her accent was very unusual but she spoke of hope. For about an hour we hung onto her every word as she described the traumatic cases she had helped overcome some of the worst burn accidents we had been fortunate enough not to have witnessed.
In her deep melodious voice, she told us of very young victims of shack fires in informal settlements where unstable, poorly erected zinc and wood structures often caught alight. In a one-room structure where everything is in close proximity there is very little room for manouevre. As soon as a spark hit a nylon blanket in a cramped, cluttered space there is very little time to rescue sleeping children when a kerosene lamp is knocked over.
Illegal electrical connections, usually supplied by unqualified thugs, can cause rapid and devasting destruction where shacks are erected less than one metre apart. Rows of shacks often burn down in quick succession where water is not immediately available and fire trucks cannot access the required areas for lack of roads.
We were ashamed that we thought our problem was insurmountable. She in turn, was sweet and humble, apologising for our misfortune.